Lesbianism becomes fashionable

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At this time of year, one's thoughts naturally turn to lesbians. If cuddling up to one female body is an appealing thought as autumn rolls in, how much warmer would it be to curl up with two? And luckily the BBC is obliging us with Tipping the Velvet, a full-on Sapphic romp through the music halls of Victorian London, adapted from Sarah Waters's novel of the same name.

At this time of year, one's thoughts naturally turn to lesbians. If cuddling up to one female body is an appealing thought as autumn rolls in, how much warmer would it be to curl up with two? And luckily the BBC is obliging us with Tipping the Velvet, a full-on Sapphic romp through the music halls of Victorian London, adapted from Sarah Waters's novel of the same name.

It has been impossible to move this September without the image of the heroines, played by the luscious Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes, in their viciously laced corsets. And, Zadie Smith aside, Waters is the most lauded female novelist of the year, her latest book, Fingersmith, having been shortlisted for every major literary award (including next month's Booker). Waters is just one of several mainstream novelists escaping the clichés of girl-on-boy chick lit. Stephanie Theobald, who coined the phrase "bi-try", found success this year with Sucking Shrimp, while regular readers of this column may remember how much I admired Helen Cross's My Summer of Love, a black comedy about two teenage girls' obsessive intimacy.

This recent flush of Sapphic passion is not just a literary phenomenon. Kissing Jessica Stein, a film about a woman who is so fed up with men she starts dating women instead, was a surprise summer hit. Around the same time, the papers were agog at rumours that the actress Saffron Burrows had left her long-time lover, the film director Mike Figgis, for fellow thespian Fiona Shaw. There were no denials and, if an affair existed, it was a case of life mirroring art, as the two were co-starring in the National's adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's lesbian love story The Power Book. While in Hollywood it has become de rigueur for modish actresses such as Angelina Jolie to suggest they have bisexual urges.

Looking at this brave new labia-loving world, you struggle to remember that the lesbian life was, not so long ago, a rather friendless path to follow. Why else would Radclyffe Hall have titled her infamous, banned Twenties novel of sexual inversion The Well of Loneliness? It's wonderful – isn't it? – that we've moved so far from the days when the Evening Standard spluttered, "I would rather put a phial of prussic acid in the hands of a healthy girl or boy than the book in question." Unless we aren't quite as cosmopolitan as we all think.

It's here I must admit that this article started life as a piece for a woman's magazine. I was commissioned to write something on "latent lesbianism" and agreed with alacrity. Like Angelina Jolie et al, I have always felt there's a dozing Sappho waiting to escape my epidermis, given the right woman, two bathrooms, and my husband's acquiescence. Furthermore, as we straight people say, "A lot of my best friends are lesbians," and – here's my trump card – my own younger sister is a full-blown member of the sisterhood. How could I be better prepared for the task in hand?

Feeling jaunty, I phoned around my gay girlfriends for input, which proved both fierce and forthcoming. I was on no account to write an "insulting lipstick lesbian" piece. I must point out that "bi-try" was the style-conscious straight girl's equivalent of the gap year student's trip to Thailand. And I should say that Kissing Jessica Stein is as relevant to Sapphic experience as Mary Poppins is to childcare.

When I assessed all my material – the Zeitgeist stuff and my friends' opinions – one thing seemed clear. Straight women are gradually sequestering gay women's turf, just as the great unwashed British male once looked to his homosexual brother and discovered grooming products. But with straight women it is less to do with style than lifestyle envy. They are cottoning on to something London's clubland has known for some while: the most excitement you can currently have on two legs is to be young, talented and lesbian in Soho.

In the Fifties and again in the Nineties, Soho swung to the beat of its drunken artist tribe, but in 2002 it pulses to the leggy gait of a smooching sisterhood, hanging out in the Candy Bar, or strutting their stuff at club nights Shine or Playgirl. My own knowledge of this is, for the main part, vicarious. My sister Dorcas, who has the sort of androgynous good looks that made Chloë Sevigny a star, writes the Sapphic column for my magazine The Erotic Review and is my guide to the orchid-house scene. In her company I can glide past the clipboard minxes and sit at bars where sloe-eyed women hold your curious gaze. The dungarees, stout shoes and moustaches of lesbian legend are nowhere to be seen.

What women want

My sister is a great seductress and her slew of ex-girlfriends includes a successful model, several authors and a Soho stripper. But you will never read tabloid reports about celebrity women on the scene. The sisters don't shop other women, and the all-male paparazzi cannot access their hangouts. For this reason the clubs and bars harbour a surprising number of Arab princesses – according to my sister, their burly minders turn a blind eye to women lovers, but would kill them if they slept with men. I had a pulse-raising moment dancing thigh-to-thigh with one of these gorgeous creatures, and believed Dorcas when she told me that "you don't know the meaning of sexy until you've been with an Arab woman".

I thought all this might make an interesting story. That wannabes, such as myself, want to gatecrash the Sapphic sanctum, and that gay women distrust their new chic status, fearing invasion by a fashion-victim sorority. But when I submitted the piece I found I had fatally misunderstood the commission. What was required was not "latent lesbianism" but "lesbianism lite". I should have told the readers that "this winter, Sapphic sex is the new black". Which is possibly true, but where does it leave real lesbians, such as my sister? I remembered something a bisexual friend had said to me: that no one minds if two girls have a fling; it's when they get serious the whole world panics.

It seems what is "latent" in our society is not so much lesbianism as the way lesbian reality is proscribed. Why else are so few prominent women "out"? Perhaps the taboo is driven by fear. Women tend to access their gay side more easily than men, and a mass movement to same-sex relationships is therefore far more plausible and threatening to the fabric of society.

The sexual fluidity of the human female probably springs from the dominant role that mothers play in their upbringing. A young girl's observation of her mother, and her subsequent questioning of what makes women lovable and desirable, mean that girls become competitive with their mother and other women for male attention. The man whose notice is fought for is often less key than the woman who stimulates the contest. My friend, the psychoanalyst Darian Leader, explained it to me thus: "A bloke sitting in a café sees an attractive woman walk past the window with a man and looks at her. A woman sitting in a café sees an attractive man walk past the window with a female companion and she too looks at the woman. What interests her is the relationship between them and what makes him desire her."

Women, it seems, routinely eroticise their own sex. And most women are also keenly aware that by expressing sexual interest in another woman they will increase their allure to men. No wonder society has historically felt the need to keep its mothers cleaving to the straight and narrow. Without them, the flower of the nation's young womanhood would flock to join Dorcas as she stalks her twilight world, free from the awkward negotiations of heterosexual dating.

And the lingering taboo does have its up side. The raffish and mesmeric energy of Soho's Sapphic scene is surely drawn from its defiance of outdated strictures. It's a girl's world.

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